Israel needs 'day after' plan if it wants US backing for Rafah op

Report: In ‘difficult’ video call, US tells Israel its Rafah evacuation plan not viable

Virtual meeting between Blinken, Sullivan, Dermer and Hanegbi underlines sides are on ‘completely different pages’ regarding potential IDF op in southernmost Gaza city

From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)
From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

A virtual meeting on Monday between US and Israeli officials to discuss a potential IDF ground operation in Rafah was reportedly marked by tensions and accusations as Washington expressed deep skepticism over Israeli plans to operate in the southernmost Gaza city.

The two-hour video call between US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the American side and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi on the Israeli side was extremely “difficult,” a Tuesday Channel 12 report claimed, stating that it showed the US and Israel are on “completely different pages” when it comes to Israel’s planned operation in Rafah where Jerusalem says four Hamas battalions remain.

The US representatives expressed deep concern about the threat of famine in Gaza and were highly critical of the IDF’s plans for Rafah, saying its evacuation proposal for the million-plus noncombatants in the city was unimpressive and not implementable.

Offering Hebrew translations of the alleged English conversation, Channel 12 reported that Sullivan told the group: “You’re going to be responsible for the third famine crisis of the 21st century. That is not something we can accept as partners.

Blinken was said to tell Dermer and Hanegbi that “according to the pace of your operations, it will take you four months to evacuate Rafah.”

The Israeli officials were quoted as not having anything to say regarding the US critiques other than reiterating their belief that Hamas cannot be dismantled without the IDF going into Rafah.

Palestinians inspect the ruins of a residential building after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 29, 2024. (AP/Hatem Ali)

Sullivan reportedly responded: “If you don’t have a proper plan for the day after, nothing will help you in dismantling Hamas. Not [operating in] Rafah, and not anything else.”

Essentially, Channel 12 summed up, the US representatives on the call made clear that if Israel wants any kind of American green light for an operation in Rafah, it needs to provide a viable “day after” plan for the post-war management of Gaza along with a credible evacuation plan for Rafah.

In a joint readout issued following the meeting on Monday, Israel agreed to take into account US concerns regarding Rafah and also agreed to hold a follow-up meeting in-person in Washington next week.

The sides “agreed that they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah” during the two-hour meeting, the US readout said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a press conference on Sunday evening that he had “approved the IDF operational plan for Rafah. The IDF is prepared for the evacuation of the civilian population and for the provision of humanitarian assistance.” He has made such declarations several times, though, in recent months; and it remains unclear whether any IDF operation in Rafah is imminent, given that the army has withdrawn the vast majority of its troops from Gaza.

Netanyahu added that “this is the right thing both operationally and internationally. This will take time but it will be done. We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there for one simple reason: There is no victory without entering Rafah and there is no victory without eliminating the Hamas battalions there.”

Palestinian children sit on a hill next to tents housing the displaced in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The US-Israel inter-agency meeting was supposed to have been held in-person last week but was delayed after Netanyahu refused to send his top aides to Washington in protest of the US decision to allow the passing of a UN Security Council resolution that called for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release without explicitly conditioning the former on the latter.

The US maintains that such an incursion will not advance Israel’s war aims because it will lead to even more civilian casualties, cut off the delivery of humanitarian aid that is hubbed in Rafah, further isolate Israel internationally and harm Israel’s long-term security. Moreover, US officials have told The Times of Israel that Washington doesn’t view Israel’s aim of evacuating that many Palestinians as realistic, arguing that there is nowhere left in Gaza to which civilians can safely evacuate and shelter.

Two senior US officials told The Times of Israel last month that Washington envisions Israel focusing instead on securing the Egypt-Gaza border, preventing the smuggling of weapons that have allowed Hamas to re-arm between wars with Israel.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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